We all have different ideas about what constitutes having a bad attitude. Where we can agree is that bad attitudes can be very disruptive. Having a bad day that sours your attitude happens to everyone. Someone having a bad day every day is unacceptable. Sooner or later you will have to deal with this type of disruptive subordinate. If you don't deal with it, his or her unchecked attitude will spread like a contagious disease. Your only play is to define the problem in terms of behavior and the negative effect it has on individual and unit performance.
Your first step is to document the unwanted behaviors. A bad attitude will be expressed in behaviors such as excessive carelessness, inattention to work, laziness, excessive socializing, and insensitivity to others. You need to note how many times these thing occur and how it affects the normal ebb and flow of the workplace. You also need to start a list of reasons why the behavior must end.
A good place to start is with your policy and procedure. The more you can attach a negative behavior to a policy violation, the stronger your positon becomes. Most agencies have some type of policy that covers conformance to rules and laws, treating fellow employees with respect, and some type of unsatisfactory performance clause. Most unwanted behavior will fall under one of those broad categories.
Once you get your documentation together you will have to meet with the offending subordinate. You have four goals to accomplish: you need to communicate your concerns, determine the cause of the negative behavior, identify avenues for improvement, and ultimately improve the employee's performance.
When you communicate your concerns, avoid the uncomfortable small talk and just get right to it. You must be direct and candid by speaking in specifics. Make sure you give examples of what is unacceptable behavior and what you deem acceptable (to compare and contrast). Explain what it is exactly you expect out of the employee.
Next, try to identify the root of the problem. Is it home or work related? Is it something you can help with or do you need to refer it to someone else? Does the employee have a justifiable grievance? Does it involve a training issue? Regardless of what the root cause is, the person's poor behavior can't continue. You need to make that very clear as you offer to assist the employee in dealing with any issues he or she may have.
After you discuss the whys of it, you need to focus on the "how to fix it" part. You need to reach an understanding on the corrective action, set up a follow-up date to check on the progress, and continue to monitor for improvement. It's at this point you must ensure that your employee understands the need for your directness but it's also up to you to leave him feeling you care about his opinions, concerns, and that you are there to help him. It sounds like a contradiction but it's not. You can do your job as a supervisor by holding them accountable and still show concern for your subordinate's welfare at the same time; to be truly effective you need both.
Ultimately the goal is to bring your subordinate's behavior back to meeting or exceeding standards. Just remember, you can do everything right and still end up with a behavior problem. I can summarize the dilemma by stating this old cliché: "You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink." At the end of the day, it's up to the employee to decide if she will change her attitude or not. And if she doesn't, you'll have to up your game to include progressive discipline.
Progressive discipline follows this basic model that includes verbal counseling, written counseling, written reprimand, suspension, and finally termination if it goes that far.
Following this model, your initial attempts at correcting the problem has already involved verbal and written counseling. If you need to go further, it's time for some type of formal discipline. Discipline usually starts with a written reprimand and later goes into a suspension without pay. Though you hope it doesn't go much farther, some employees insist on digging their own graves and face termination no matter how hard you try.
Your takeaway from this article should be twofold; you don't have to put up with a bad attitude and you can deal with it in terms of unwanted behaviors. Documenting, counseling, and dishing out discipline is all part of being a supervisor at any level. It's best you prepare for these eventualities early in your career so that you are prepared to meet them head on. Finding a mentor will help as well.
Amaury Murgado is a special operations lieutenant with the Osceola County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office. He has over 28 years of law enforcement experience and is a retired master sergeant from the Army Reserve.